The Shadow and Bone showrunner had a reason for changing the books’ ending
Stepping up to adapt a beloved YA series with passionate fans is no easy task. We’ve seen the rise and fall of the Twilights, Hunger Games, and Shadowhunters of the world. Up to bat now is Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grishaverse books, a fantasy series that takes place in a world of elemental summoners and impressive thieves. They’ve been beloved for the better part of the last decade, but it was only with 2021’s Netflix adaptation Shadow and Bone that they made it to the screen.
Right away, showrunner Eric Heisserer made some bold choices — pulling in characters who don’t canonically get introduced till after the main series? Making Alina half-Shu? Adjusting the core romantic relationships? But if the first season’s reception was any indication, those choices were the right ones — fans ate it up.
With the second season out, the writers behind Shadow and Bone have continued to make daring decisions, leaning on the books as a launching pad instead of a foundation. Whether or not these changes work might depend on how accurate you like your page-to-screen adaptations. But one thing’s for sure: Heisserer and his team aren’t too concerned about being totally faithful, so long as they capture the spirit of the story.
Polygon spoke to Heisserer about the challenges of adapting the beloved books into eight episodes, changing character arcs, and the plotline he was sad didn’t make it into the final cut.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for season 2 of Shadow and Bone.]
Polygon: You covered so much ground in only eight episodes this season — Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising, plus aspects of the Crows duology and more. Why did it make sense to condense so much into this season?
Eric Heisserer: It was less about looking to condense things. It was more about making sure that with all the characters that we had, and all the mouths we were looking to feed, we gave them a full meal. We looked for the most active moments and scenes for these characters that helped push the story forward where their choices made a difference. And this is really what we came up with. We started with that idea of, How can we make sure that each of these people feel like they’re contributing to the story, and aren’t just sort of set by the wayside? What we wound up with was sort of an interesting collection of sequences. We then had to do a lot of heavy lifting to make sure that (a) they work together and (b) that if we pulled from future books, that we knew we could replace it with something just as compelling that wouldn’t disturb any of the story around that, should we have the privilege to get to it.
Was there a scene from the books that you absolutely knew you had to keep?
There were a lot of scenes that we knew that we had to keep from multiple books that we pulled from. It was only a matter of, Can we keep it and also then maybe come back to other things that we didn’t have time for? We wanted to preserve a number of scenes between Alina and Mal, Alina and Nikolai. Sturmhond interacting with a number of people, including — this isn’t necessarily from the book, but to have him interacting with the Crows would end up being vital to the way that this season’s story played out, and help connect the dots about stuff that happened in season 1.
Was there a particular arc or relationship that you wish there had been more time to explore?
Yes, this is a great question! We had an important side story that featured Feydor and Ivan from season 1 that we had written into season 2, and leaned on pretty heavily. We were excited to explore that relationship dynamic more, as two lovers who found each other on either side of this war between Alina and Kirigan. And we’d gotten far enough into it that we had Julian [Kostov] there for early press during preproduction. We were hoping to bring Simon [Sears] in. Although he had a feature film commitment, we were looking to try and find a way around that schedule. Then Julian caught COVID during production, at a time that made it impossible for us to find a way to keep them in the season. That was heartbreaking for both me and Daegan [Fryklind].
It also meant a lot of rewriting on the fly. We were like, Oh, what are we gonna do about this whole storyline now? And so what we’re hoping to do is show how both of these characters survived not only the end of season 1, but through season 2, and how they can reunite with other characters if we have a chance to do so moving forward.
We see the cost merzost and power has on Kirigan manifested in his scars. In the books, we see that in Alina’s hair going white. Did you ever consider having Alina have white hair in the show? Or was that something that didn’t work with the vision of the show?
We gave it a run and learned just how horrible wigs are. We didn’t want to do that disservice to Jessie [Mei Li], or to the fans, and felt like there should be another way for us to showcase the presence of merzost in Alina. In the last scene of 208 [season 2, episode 8], I think does a pretty bold [job].
Sturmhond is such a beloved figure in the books and a huge part of why Nikolai is a fan favorite. But Nikolai sheds his privateer identity fairly quickly and then passes it off entirely to Mal. Why was this the right approach for Nikolai and Sturmhond in the show?
In the show we look at two dynamics. The first is Nikolai ascending to king of Ravka and knowing that’s going to be his full-time position and essentially retiring the identity of Sturmhond — at least for the foreseeable future, as he’s kind of got a country to run. And then we had Mal, who has sort of lost his identity. He’s been on track and realized that he had something that he was destined for, and fulfilled that role and had an emptiness of purpose that he needed to fill. Over the course of the season, I think we did our best to showcase his interest and affinity for sea travel. For him to have the opportunity to step into that and take on Sturmhond… We thought it was fitting and gave Mal a new dimension to explore, an ability for him to get comfortable with who he is before he decides to come back and pursue Alina.
Mal and Alina go their separate ways at the end of the season, which is a big departure from their fates in the book. Why make this decision for Mal and Alina going forward?
It felt the most emotionally honest for the two of them in this stage of their relationship, considering that he has lost his way in terms of his purpose, and that she has a huge purpose now in charge of the Second Army. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not still in love with each other. I think they very much are. They’re just worried about their futures, and to make sure that they can return with confidence. The last scene between Alina and Mal speaks to the truth of their hopes and fears.
Then I mean, from a practicality standpoint of the show, we don’t want to lose Jessie or Archie [Renaux]! We’re not gonna cut them for some Ravkan cottage. That would be a terrible choice on our part! For one, they’re amazing human beings — like Jessie just brings a brightness to the set every time she shows up, and really leads the way in terms of showing the cast and crew the type of show we are.
Speaking of the cast, the cast of Shadow and Bone really embodies their characters so well. What was something they brought to the roles that surprised you or just felt, like, so in sync?
Anna [Leong Brophy] and Lewis [Tan] hung out and started behaving like siblings right away, which was surprising and delightful. Lewis started this bit like Brad Pitt’s character in Ocean’s Eleven where Tolya’s just constantly eating something always in the background. He’s familiar with food, which makes him Nina’s best friend as soon as Nina meets him. I thought that was adorable.
We had initially thought to put Paddy [Gibson] in a disguise for Sturmhond, where we were trying to consider maybe giving him some slight facial prosthetics or some other makeup that would alter his physical appearance. [We] found it to be not as effective as we wanted. With Paddy showing off what he can do in terms of body language with a slightly different accent, and the fact that there’s no global TV in the Grishaverse that would allow people to know what this wayward prince from an eastern country protected by a deadly Shadow Fold would look like… We’re like, You know what? Actually, we’re OK.
Where did the inspiration behind the new Crows heist come from?
That was a solution born out of the necessity of realizing that to try and put the Crows in with the Ravkan storyline and against the nichevo’ya, it just was a very one-sided fight. The nichevo’ya would just slaughter everybody and we didn’t like the sound of that at all.
So we were trying to figure out what it is that could unite these two groups the way that we united them in season 1. It was a mandate from Netflix to make this magic trick happen again. So we went into the season 2 writers room with that idea of like, OK, how can we pull this off again? [Co-showrunner] Daegan [Fryklind] found in her reread of The Lives of Saints, the story of Santka Neyar and the blade written into the story by Leigh as being so sharp it could cut through shadow. We thought that was the key to it, in terms of the mission that they would go on, and then the extra bit of fun would be who from the Ravkan storyline would come over and hire them and go with them on this mission. We tried a number of character combinations and landed on Tolya and Zoya as being the most fun.
How did you land on which characters to bring together?
In the books Zoya knows Nina, and we wanted to play into that relationship dynamic a little bit. She had trained Nina at some point. Both of the siblings [Tolya and Tamar] are Shu, so it made sense to have one of them. And in realizing that Tamar, and Joanna [McGibbon]’s character, Nadia, were developing a bit of a relationship in the story at that point, it felt more like she would stay behind. So those two came over and got to be an outside perspective to all the interesting relations dynamics with the Crows. They just ended up being a lot of fun to write.
The fandom of these books is drawn to these very iconic lines. Some of them make it; some of them don’t, just through the adaptation process. But how did you decide which lines to make sure to incorporate?
We boarded our writers room and everyone — even down to our writers’ PA — could come in and put a line of dialogue, or four, on there as a wishlist. There were more must-haves, and it was just a matter of seeing if we’d get to them all in one season. Or if we found a way to find those in later seasons. Even if it felt like it was material that we covered. Because as it’s been demonstrated… The name of my production company is Chronology. So it’s something that means we’re not quite tethered to the timeline in the same way as the books. We’re trying to make sure to capture the spirit and feeling. If there’s a way for us to return to that and find a home for [a part] in the dialogue we will. Particularly, the Crows’ lines were pretty heavy for a while until some of my other writers stepped up and and showcased their love for the Shadow and Bone trilogy because there’s just a lot of great, snarky lines from Alina, and of course there’s a ton of Nikolai and Sturmhond lines that we were excited to get to.
With regard to iconic lines, Mal gets a rather infamous tattoo of the phrase “I am become a blade” in the books. Was that something you thought about including, or was it easier to let go?
That was easier to let go. The idea of tattoos in this world are typically for institutions. So it was hard for us to make this a piece that is more about individuals. What we did instead was modify that line of dialogue, and have him say it to Alina: “The whole country will become your blade.”
The romantic relationships have always been a huge part of the series — and something the fans love. Mal and Alina’s and Jesper and Wylan’s relationships seem to have changed the most, while Inej and Kaz and Nina and Matthias are pretty true to the books — what made some of these relationships work as they were for the screen and others need some adjustments?
We look to try our best to preserve the aesthetic fidelity of the books and pay our deep respect and love to the source material. There’s also the fact that in adaptation, you will stumble upon things that don’t work the way they should in the adaptation that worked fine in the books. And some of that comes from the fact that you have up to a dozen different creative voices in the mix all from different walks of life with different cultural relationship backgrounds. That really shed a light on both the Mal and Alina relationship and the Jesper and Wylan relationship, in that they brought personal experience in the real world to these relationships, these dynamics. Particularly with Jesper and Wylan, [we] found an iteration that felt honest to the people who most identify with that couple. And let them be, I would say one of the healthiest relationships at the end of season 2, if not the whole show.
That final scene, where Alina uses the Cut to kill a Fjerdan agent, is particularly shocking and gory — what was the intention behind it?
It was more a case of showcasing how Alina’s price for using merzost has manifested. That she didn’t escape and get away with resurrecting her boyfriend for free. It also demonstrates that she’s going to be around for next season. In the book, she’s stripped of power and retires. And as I said before, we weren’t about to lose Jessie.
Season 2 of Shadow and Bone is now streaming on Netflix.